Rebounding from Leadership Crisis

By A. Michael Kundu

It was a scenario that all school board members dread: Almost one week before Halloween 2003, and classrooms in Marysville, Wash., still were empty.

The community was furious. Teachers in the 11,000-student district remained on the picket lines for 49 days, and the school board refused to face the public. In the end, a judge’s injunction brought teachers back into classrooms, but fallout from the confrontation left deep scars in the community. Ultimately, the incident led to the ouster of school board members and the replacement of 95 percent of the district’s administration.

School boards across the country face a stark reality: The rule of democracy makes it possible for any candidate, despite personal political agendas, to secure the influential role of a school trustee. In most cases, a vigorous public process keeps the system in check, but in some situations the emergence of special interest “activist” boards can devastate a community.

Marysville’s infamous 2003 strike is a classic example of what could go wrong. Some may still believe the strike stemmed from a simple wage dispute, but the underlying reality is that it was the outcome of what could happen when a slate of anti-union board members attempted to build an activist empire in a public school district.

Five years later, the district has experienced a remarkable turnaround, repairing relationships and focusing on innovative programs that support student achievement. I was elected to the board during the strike and now, in my second term, have a perspective that is valuable to others faced with similar issues. Here is what happened, and how our district rebounded from the experience.

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A. Michael Kundu (Michael@seawolfmedia.com) is president of the Marysville, Wash., school board. He is an external affairs specialist for the Department of Homeland Security, serving the Greater Seattle area.
Illustration by Jonathan Barkat.